Professor John Schwenkler Speaks at First Philosophy Colloquium of the Year

On Friday, Sept. 17 the philosophy department welcomed Professor John Schwenkler from Florida State University for the first Philosophy Colloquium of the academic year. In addition to Schwenklers’ position as a professor, Schwenkler is an author, editor and researcher whose interests involve the philosophy of mind and action, incorporating questions of ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of language. 

To preface the lecture, entitled “Steering Clear of Trouble”, Schwenkler began with a fairly straightforward concept: the tendency of individuals to avoid situations in which they may make poor decisions. Schwenkler used the example of a gambler who has resolved to avoid visiting casinos at all costs to help conceptualize this philosophical situation. Although this seems straightforward on the surface, Schwenkler revealed this kind of planning to be puzzling for two reasons. 

Firstly, as Schwenkler explained:

“Having a plan to avoid tempting circumstances shouldn’t preclude having further plans for what we’ll do if we happen to find ourselves in them – yet, when the further plans are in place and judged to be good, it can be hard to see what rationale remains for avoiding the temptation in the first place.”

Schwenkler then introduced a second puzzle; even when strategic planning is sufficient, we often find it a worse form of self-control than if we were able simply to act well initially. But how does this make sense if our focus should be on the quality of our actions?

In the words of  senior attendee Minlu Li’s:

“John Schwenkler points out the difference in expressing self-control when we say ‘I am not going to X, for I am likely to do Y’ and ‘If I go to X, I will do Y.’ It is quite puzzling indeed to think further about anticipatory expressions such as the former being more limited in its usefulness in comparison to the latter expression.”

Schwenkler explained that this framework can bring about two schools of thought in regard to moral capabilities. The first one is that our moral capabilities are limited, similar to how most of us physically could not run a 5-minute mile today no matter how hard we try. The second, which he regards as “less terrifying” is the existence of self-management to maintain temptation. In terms of the casino scenario, this suggests that a gambler could prepare for a funeral in Las Vegas in some contexts, perhaps by moving money from their checking to savings account. Yet in true philosophical fashion, this concept brings up yet more questions of the ability of people to plan strategically, and whether we predict what to do or decide what to do. 

Schwenkler explained, “Strategic planning is thinking about our thinking. When the rubber meets the road, we find a completely different process of the first-order deliberation.”

Another attendee, senior Eliza Lloyd, found the talk enlightening, particularly as the subject matter fell outside of her typical academic pursuits.

“This talk illuminated the complexities of language that we take for granted, such as ‘I will not go to the casino because I don’t want to risk partaking in gambling.’ The way he ultimately describes these situations where we make decisions to avoid temptations is that we are ‘Thinking about our thinking.’ Essentially, we are making strategic choices in a clear headspace that we might not be able to make rationally in a more tempting or distracting environment,” Lloyd said. “While I didn’t fully understand everything that he fleshed out, talks like these are fun for me and help broaden my perspectives.”

After 45 minutes, Schwenkler opened the floor to the staff and students attending for an open dialogue about the nature of strategic planning and its faults. Staff and students engaged in enthusiastic debate on the nature of these moral questions. 

If you are interested in upcoming events from the philosophy department, information can be found on the Colgate philosophy department website.